Case Study: The Callanish Blackhouse- contested representations of the recent past

Purchased in 1934, one of the National Trust for Scotland’s earliest strategic acquisitions was a blackhouse in the crofting township of Callanish, Lewis. The subsequent history of this building provides a good example of the way in which the material fabric of everyday life is re-worked to re-invent collective histories, infusing representation of the recent past with a political dynamic.

The 1930s was a period of profound and rapid change which saw the aspirations of small agricultural communities shift in the context of ongoing emigration, intensifying industrialization and increasing mechanization of the rural economy. In the Western Isles, this socio-economic transformation occasioned the abandonment of 19th-century ‘blackhouses’ (the local architectural tradition) in favour of ‘white houses’ whose architectural features derived from mainland traditions. By the mid 1930s, the townships of Lewis consisted of rows of white houses interspersed with abandoned blackhouses; those few of the latter form that remained in use were either occupied by the older members of the community or had lost their domestic function.

One of the key figures occupied in researching and recording this fast-disappearing vernacular heritage was Isabel Grant, a member of the National Trust’s Executive Committee. On her recommendation, the Trust sought to acquire a vernacular domestic building on the Isle of Lewis. Rooted in 18th-century theories of societal development and Romantic philosophies, the academic perspective which framed Grant’s proposal equated spatial remoteness from the centre – in this case, the industrialized heart of Empire – with retarded development. Thus the social and material world of the blackhouse was considered to offer a rare opportunity to observe otherwise long-vanished ways of living.

The blackhouse ultimately acquired by the Trust was a mid 19th-century building, modernized in the 1890s by the removal of its central open hearth and the addition of a ‘best room’ with a gable-end fireplace. From its Edinburgh centre, the Trust sought to return the building, which it believed to be very much older, to a perceived ‘original type’. Its conditions of purchase therefore required the crofter to restore the building to its ‘original condition’ (in reality, a theoretical construct), which among other things involved demolition of the recent extension.

The Gearrannan Blackhouses 7.JPG

The Gearrannan Blackhouses By Dorothea Witter-Rieder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 1935, as the re-worked blackhouse was being fitted out as a museum of rural life, a local committee newly established to oversee its management brought an entirely different set of aspirations to bear on the building. The committee, comprising members of the Stornoway establishment, considered the structure liable to mislead the public, not being a ‘typical old time crofter’s house’. Heated correspondence makes it clear that the committee’s essential objection was that the blackhouse embodied the way of life of a stratum of society it felt unworthy of recognition. The rural heritage it wished to preserve for the ever-increasing numbers of cultural tourists was one of well-to-do crofters and township leaders. Playing down themes of poverty and exploitation which pervaded the island’s recent history, the committee envisaged an ‘ideal’ blackhouse which would embody strength of purpose and character in the island’s past. Their proposal to demolish the existing building and construct a much more elaborate example with no known parallels was ultimately rejected by the National Trust, but a compromise was reached whereby part of the existing fabric was retained in a complete recasting of the building as a ‘superior’ dwelling house.

The views of the Callanish crofters themselves were only sought in the immediate post-war period, when Trust funds were tight. Local subscriptions to help maintain the building were not forthcoming, and it was effectively abandoned. Although strong bonds of lineage and continuous inhabitation had linked the crofting community to individual blackhouses, they also represented nearly a century of oppression, political inequality and hardship. The post-war crofters were realizing their own aspirations to modernity, leaving past materiality behind.

Then, from the 1970s and 80s, island communities began to draw upon blackhouses as an emotive symbol of a distinctive and valued local heritage in opposition to centralist histories. Since then, this vernacular architecture has been enfolded in a broad spectrum of initiatives with impetus from both external and internal communities, which draw on different aspects of the past to make sense of the present in varied ways and move towards different, desired futures. These alternative histories can be contradictory and they can be contested; they are always strategic and conditional.

Return to Section 9.3 (Re)presenting the modern past

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